When my domestic help brought her two teenaged children to my house for a chat one day, my sons became suddenly tightlipped and ill at ease. They did not know how to handle the ‘challenge’ of saying a simple hello to children who were of the same age, but seemingly so different from them.
In our school, neighbourhood and community we are used to seeing people who are similar to us. We find it easy to get along with peers who are like us in appearance and habits, sharing the same rituals, having similar abilities and choices to make in life. How many of us feel comfortable when we have to deal with someone who is ‘different’ from us? Have you ever felt at a loss for words or not comfy when you were introduced to someone with a physical disability? Not knowing what to say and how, we fumble and often end up making a fool of ourselves!
It is quite a paradox that even though our society is so diverse in India, a majority of us are uncomfortable and feel inadequately prepared when it comes to approaching or making friends with those who are unlike us. However, we must understand that embracing differences is no longer a matter of choice.
I would like to make a specific reference here to the Right to Education Act, passed in 2009 in India, which has directed all schools to admit children from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well as children with disabilities. As this Act is implemented across the country, we should soon expect to have children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and learning needs in our own classrooms.
Remember, discomfort arises due to unfamiliarity. If you have travelled to a foreign country, this will be a familiar feeling. It is hard for us to approach strangers in a foreign land because we feel awkward and restrained. Our inhibitions arise because we expect people who appear different from us to be different in personality as well. It is only when the initial hesitation to approach is overcome that we realise that there is much that we have in common.
And guess what? Even if there is absolutely nothing in common, wouldn’t it be exciting to discover something new? A whole new world to venture into!
If you have new students in your classroom this academic year who seem different from your peer group, go an extra mile, step out of your comfort zone and help them get integrated into your system. Think how awkward they must feel in a new, unfamiliar environment.
What can we do? Make the first move, introduce yourself, choose to sit next to them during class time, show them around school, spend some time with them during lunch hour, introduce them to your friends, include them in your social network, and discover their lives. Choosing to make new friends and overcoming our inhibitions will enrich our own lives and prepare us for new experiences and challenges in the future.
Deal with differences by embracing them!